Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-18


In this chapter, Krakauer’s account returns to the summit to describe what happened to the remaining climbers. Fischer reaches the summit around 3:40pm, where Lopsang is waiting for him and Hall is waiting for Hansen. Makalu Gau and two Sherpas arrive just behind him. Fischer complains that he feels tired and sick, and turns to descend by 4:00pm, followed by Gau, his Sherpas, and Lopsang. Hansen finally appears around the same time, and Hall hurries to meet him. Despite being way past his obligatory turnaround time, Hall assists Hansen with the last few feet to the summit. Hall had coaxed Hansen into giving Everest another shot after his failed attempt the year before, which Krakauer speculates led to Hall’s uncharacteristic willingness to significantly bend his own rules to ensure Hansen made it. They descend to the top of the Hillary Step, where Hansen runs out of oxygen and expends whatever small reserves of strength he had left. Hall radios Harris at the South Summit requesting emergency oxygen, but Harris, mentally impaired and dealing with a faulty regulator, incorrectly responds that there is no oxygen left. Groom overhears the transmission and manages to contact Hall and correct Harris’s mistake, but by then it’s already 5:00pm. Lopsang arrives at the South Summit, where Harris pleads with him to help carry oxygen up to Hall and Hansen, but Lopsang declines, worried about catching up with a weak Fischer. Harris, himself in serious condition, begins climbing back up to Hall and Hansen alone.

A few hundred feet below, Fischer struggles down the mountain with no bottled oxygen. He begins to lose faith and is considering just jumping off the ridge when Lopsang catches up to him and ties himself to Fischer to prevent any intentional or unintentional missteps. By 8:00pm, Fischer can no longer continue and tries to persuade Lopsang to leave him. Soon, however, Gau catches up to them, in similarly bad shape, and it’s decided that the Sherpas should go to Camp Four and send help for both Fischer and Gau. With difficulty, Lopsang reaches camp around midnight and alerts Boukreev that Fischer is stranded 1,200 feet above them. Guy Cotter, a climber friend of Hall’s and Harris’s, had been monitoring their ascent on his radio from a nearby peak. He’s alarmed upon hearing that Hall is stuck at the Hillary Step with Hansen, and implores him to descend at all costs, even if it means abandoning Hansen. That communication occurs at 6:00pm and Hall isn’t heard from again until 5:00am the next day. He radios Base Camp from the South Summit, confused, irrational, and alone. Cotter, Helen Winton at Base Camp, and Ed Viesturs from the IMAX expedition try to convince Hall to collect himself and descend, but he repeatedly asks for information about Harris and the other climbers. He relays that Hansen died in the night but he lost track of Harris, leaving him deeply concerned. They eventually lie, telling him that Harris is safely at camp, in order to calm him down. Krakauer mentions that no one ever located Harris’s body and solved the mystery of his fate, although his ice pick was found high on an exposed ridge, suggesting that he may have fallen thousands of feet to his death.

At 9:30am, Ang Dorje leaves Camp Four on an ambitious attempt to rescue Hall, while three other Sherpas leave to rescue Fischer and Gau. The latter mission reaches Fischer and Gau, but the Sherpas conclude that Fischer is beyond saving and leave him on the ridge, taking only Gau back down with them. When an intense windstorm forces Ang Dorje to abort his mission 700 feet below the South Summit, Hall’s friends make one final attempt to persuade him to move before conceding defeat. At 6:20pm, Hall’s pregnant wife calls Base Camp from New Zealand and is patched through to him. They talk as if the situation is under control and everything will be all right. Hall signs off by telling her that he loves her, telling her to sleep well, and—finally—telling her not to worry too much. Those are the last words anyone would hear from Hall—his body is found on the South Summit 12 days later.

On the same day that Krakauer’s team ascended to the summit, a team of 6 from the Indian province of Ladakh attempted to do the same from the Tibetan side of the mountain. Three gave up early while the rest pushed on in deteriorating conditions. Low visibility led them to believe they had reached the top, when in reality they were at a false summit 500 feet below, which explains why they never crossed paths with Krakauer’s team. The three climbers disappeared in the night but were found the next morning—in bad shape but still alive—by two Japanese climbers. The Japanese climbers, instead of stopping to help, heartlessly continued to the summit and left them to die, explaining that they didn’t have time to let moral duties distract them from their ultimate goal.


Once again the narrative structure repeats itself, this time following Fischer, Harris, Hansen, and Hall down from the summit. With each repetition the outcome becomes increasingly bleak, despite the climbers being more experienced. After many discussions throughout the book about the relative strength and skills of different climbers, Chapters 14-17 render skill mostly irrelevant. The storm becomes the great equalizer, spreading the chance of death evenly across the full spectrum of experience from Hall down to Pittman. Everyone is also shown to be vulnerable to the power of ambition, however irrational, with even Hall blatantly blowing past his 2:00pm turnaround time in order to see Hansen make it to the top. Hansen’s final steps with Hall at his side is one of the book’s clearest examples of strength, will, and loyalty—at last demonstrating the traits of the idealized mountaineer. It is notable that this moment of “triumph” is linked directly to their impending deaths, suggesting that the mountaineer as envisioned in popular imagination is little more than a fantasy, and a fatal one at that.

Hall’s predicament on the summit mobilizes everyone on the mountain, and this camaraderie within the climbing community is symbolized by the radios connecting them all to Hall across vast distances. Despite their deep pool of climbing skill and experience, the most powerful rescue tools at their disposal are words. They encourage and cajole Hall in an attempt to persuade him to simply stay alive and restore the strength of will that had driven him to the pinnacle of his profession. In the battle between nature and human ambition that defines the entire narrative, Hall always appeared to have the upper hand: his career, expertise, organization, and respect were all a cut above the rest of the expedition guides. On the summit, however, his will to survive is finally defeated.

The story of the Ladakhi climbers offers a short and interesting parallel to Krakauer’s story, raising further questions of belonging and morality. Inexperienced and overly ambitious, the three Ladakhis die without ever even reaching the top, the false summit symbolic of the misplaced decision to attempt the ascent in the first place. The Japanese climbers who could have helped them come off as cold and heartless, but they survive the day unscathed. Is Mt. Everest a place where morality and altruism—as in Hall’s decision to wait for Hansen, or Harris’s decision to bring extra oxygen to them—ultimately amount to a death sentence?